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‘We need to talk to each other about the digital society’

Interview with Paul Francissen, co-founder of Publicroam

Publicroam offers people Wi-Fi access at guest locations such as libraries and the Salvation Army. You only need to create a Publicroam account once. You can then automatically go online at all affiliated locations. Privacy, security and ease of use are of paramount importance at Publicroam. For the Tada manifesto, we spoke with co-founder Paul Francissen about how to involve people in value-driven technology and what role Tada could play in this.

About the manifesto ‘Tada – Clear about data’

The promises of the use of data and new technologies are great; our cities are becoming greener and more livable, health care more effective and education more accessible. But what happens to all the data and who is ultimately responsible? In the manifesto Tada contains values that should apply in digitally responsible cities.

How did Publicroam come about?

Paul Francissen: I set up Publicroam together with Ted Dinklo. It started with Eduroam, the Wi-Fi access service for education. Inspired by this I took the initiative for Govroam. One third of government institutions are now connected to this. Then Ted and I wondered, why isn’t this for public institutions? That has become Publicroam; every organization can connect to this in order to offer guests guest Wi-Fi easily and securely.

We link networks together so that you can go online directly at all affiliated locations. But when you as a user automatically connect to WiFi networks, you want it to be safe and privacy-friendly. You don’t want profiles to be built of you or WiFi tracking to take place. For security, we use the WPA2 enterprise security protocol. To guarantee privacy, we only collect the data that is necessary to provide the service. We ask for your name and 06 number. We do not share data with third parties. The guest locations cannot trace your WiFi use back to your name or telephone number.

Almost all services and products nowadays claim to guarantee privacy. How does the user know that it is really safe and privacy-friendly?

Our privacy statement and terms of use are relatively short and legible. We keep data as short as possible and do not secretly share it with third parties. I once looked into the terms and conditions of Apple Pay. That is an endless document full of legal jargon. If you understood what it says, you should also have time to read it all through.

We also have a governance model in which we have organized our own critic. We do not provide our service directly to users. Our customers are guest locations such as municipalities and libraries. They have a purchasing policy that sets requirements for security and privacy. This is recorded in service agreements. If we don’t comply, they will stop using our service.

Users are more likely to trust Publicroam because it is offered by those types of parties. But it is indeed a big problem that all kinds of services and products claim to be privacy-friendly and safe. Such a claim thus loses its strength. We want to be seen as a party that truly subscribes to those values. But that is not easy to explain.

Would a quality mark offer a solution? A stamp from an independent party that indicates that privacy is guaranteed?

It would be nice if there was a party that draws up an assessment framework and measures products against the yardstick. But at the same time it is also very difficult to achieve such a quality mark. Choices regarding privacy are not always black and white. At Publicroam we adhere to the strictest standards. But what we do is record the 06 number of users as long as an account is active. Traffic data is kept for three months. That data is only used when a user makes trouble on the networks. We offer access to networks of parties who do not know each other. We have built in some degree of traceability. This makes it acceptable for the guest locations to allow complete strangers to their network.

You can discuss whether that is privacy-friendly. One person understands the trade-off, the other thinks it is an invasion of privacy. A party that draws up a framework of standards for a quality mark has to make choices. Then you come to the field of beliefs and considerations become increasingly political in nature.

The Tada manifesto includes values that should apply in digitally responsible cities. What are you doing with that?

Two years ago we entered into talks with the municipality of Amsterdam about a rollout of Publicroam in the city. In those conversations we came across Tada. It is a great initiative and it matches what we are looking for. By linking to the manifesto from our website, we want to show that we endorse these public values and apply them in our business operations.

It is a particular view that we subscribe to. This goes beyond complying with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). We need to talk to each other about the digital society. What happens to data and what does that mean for the development of society? And above all, where do we all want to go? How do we get the most out of digitization and how do we minimize the negative effects? It is good to name values with which you indicate how you want to treat each other as a society.

What do you find difficult about Tada?

What I find difficult about Tada is that it is not always concrete. The manifesto is also quite generic. Actually, you would like to have a yardstick against which you can measure a service or product. You can then, for example, put AirBnB along the bar and determine whether it is in line with what we want for our city. But the problem with that is that it will quickly become political. People think very differently about something like AirBnB. The risk is that the more concrete Tada becomes, the more the raison d’ĂȘtre will be questioned.

It is great for Publicroam that there is a manifesto that we can endorse. But it also is signed by a party like Facebook . This therefore offers the user of a service no guarantees about the specific choices that each party makes. Perhaps Tada can be applied practically in the form of a transparent monitor or dashboard. We have this manifesto and we state certain values. We make those values so concrete that you can also test them. We display this in an extensive dashboard. That could provide a nuanced picture. It is not a yes / no judgment. You can then see which things are in order and where there are areas for improvement.

What appeals to you in Tada?

Tada’s strength lies in the fact that it derives its legitimacy from the city. It represents a diverse group of people concerned about the developments surrounding digitization. Because it is based on a geographic region, it is less politically colored. And that makes it easier to endorse, based on shared local interests.

I find the collaboration with other cities such as New York and Barcelona also strong. So we don’t just start from ourselves. It is a problem that is experienced worldwide. We share the same concerns and we share the same values. Together we look for alternatives and solutions. It is important that the social debate about digitization is broader. Tada could be a driving force in this. Because it reasons from values – and therefore not political or legal – Tada can independently stimulate that discussion.

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